Massachusetts tennis coach Judy Dixon first got into tennis for the money – all 25 cents of it.
As a 10-year-old girl growing up in Montclair, N.J., Dixon would get paid a quarter by her older sister to take her sister’s tennis lessons for her. It was then that Dixon fell in love with tennis, and she has been deeply involved in the sport ever since.
Dixon entered professional tennis after graduating from Southern California in 1973. She played professionally for two years and was ranked in the top 96, taking part in major tournaments, including Wimbledon once and the U.S. Open three times.
Dixon said that she was glad she got the opportunity to play in the pros, but after two years, she knew it was time to retire.
“I didn’t want life to be as it was,” Dixon said. “It’s very lonely to play tennis, because it’s such an individual sport and you go from one hotel to the next hotel to the next hotel and you don’t see where you are. You don’t see that you’re in London or you don’t see that you’re in Rome, you see the hotel. So, when it was time to stop, I knew that it was really time to stop.”
One of the biggest highlights of Dixon’s playing career came before her professional career. At age 17, she partnered with world No. 1 ranked player Billie Jean King for two tournaments.
“I played as little of the court as I could. I didn’t want to get in her way,” Dixon said. “She’s full of charisma. She drives herself like crazy. She treated me as if I was just as good as her, which was amazing. She coached me, and she sort of mentored me throughout those two weeks, and then she continued to be my friend for long after.”
King and Dixon remain friends to this day. When King came to Amherst in 2000 to receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from UMass and address the graduating class, she stayed at Dixon’s house for four days.
Dixon said that her friendship with King has changed her both as a player and as a person.
“I’ll never forget what she gave to me in terms of my tennis, but really in terms of a human being, how she poked and prodded and pushed and made me really love the game,” she said. “She really taught me about loving the game of tennis.”
Just like King, Dixon has been a pioneer for women’s rights in the sporting world. After retiring from tennis, Dixon became the coordinator for women’s athletics and the women’s tennis coach at Yale. In 1975, Dixon sued the University under Title IX, becoming the first person to sue a university for gender equity.
“There were no full-time coaches (for women’s teams), the women had one-tenth of the budget of the men, there were no trained athletic trainers available for women,” Dixon said. “My tennis team had 12 (players), the men’s tennis team had 12, we had one court to practice on, they had three, it just goes on and on.”
The summer after that year, Yale demoted Dixon to director of Media Relations for women’s sports. Dixon stayed for a year before decided to leave Yale..
Two weeks before the case was supposed to go to court years later, Yale settled. The school upgraded its budgets, gave all of the women’s teams full-time coaches, made improvements to its facilities and did everything Dixon asked for on the condition that she sign a document promising not to speak to the press for five years.
The Yale lawsuit was not Dixon’s only pioneering act. She was also nominated for an Emmy Award in Sports Broadcasting in 1975 for her color commentary of the Spalding International Mixed Doubles Championship for PBS.
Dixon was also the first woman to do color commentary for a professional sports team when she covered the Boston Lobsters of World Team Tennis alongside Bud Collins.
Although she considered sports broadcasting an amazing experience, Dixon knew that as a woman in the 1970′s, she would not be able to make it a full-time career.
“For women way back then it was impossible to get involved as a sports broadcaster. They just weren’t hiring them,” Dixon said. “They would hire me part-time in piecemeal, but I couldn’t make a living doing that.”
After her time at Yale, Dixon worked in sports marketing for several years, and then became the joint owner of a tennis health club in Sunderland. That’s when she met Glenn Wong, who at the time was the head of UMass’ sport management department.
The two became friends. And when Wong became the interim athletic director in September 1992, he offered Dixon the head coaching job for UMass’ tennis team.
Dixon was hesitant to make a commitment, but Wong told her to try it out for a year and see what would happen. She accepted and started coaching in Feb. 1993, and remains the coach to this day.
Dixon, whose 204 wins are more than any UMass tennis coach, said her style of coaching involves working hard, using the game to learn about life, and emphasizing the team above all else.
“I try to make it as much about team as I can,” Dixon said. “And that’s important to me because I believe that kids will not walk away knowing what their own individual record is, but they will walk away knowing that we beat Temple twice last year.”
Last year, her team finished the regular season with a 14-7 overall record and a 5-1 conference record for the top seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament, and finished as the runner-up in the tournament. This year, the team has a 2-0 record after winning its first two matches against Providence and Connecticut.
Dixon, 63, said she will continue coaching as long as she feels she is doing the job at maximum capacity.
“I always tell myself that I don’t want to become irrelevant,” Dixon said. “I don’t want to be in a place where I can’t physically hit the ball with the kids. I want to be able to have things that I still can say that they respect.
“My outside guess is that I would probably be here another four years, but if anything was to occur that would make me stay, then I would stay another year or two. If something happened ahead of time, and I realized that I was no longer doing what I thought was best for the program, then I would make my move.”
Jesse Mayfield-Sheehan can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @jgms88.